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Chavez and Santos hold talks in attempt to renew ties

Colombia's new President Juan Manuel Santos and Venezuela's Hugo President Chavez met on Tuesday in an attempt to defuse diplomatic tensions caused by long-simmering security issues.


AFP - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez met Tuesday to try to patch up trade and diplomatic ties torn by long-simmering border conflicts.

The two leaders met in the Caribbean city of Santa Marta for what Santos, who took office on Saturday, said would be "frank and direct" talks on a crisis that peaked last month after Colombia accused Caracas of harboring Colombian rebels.

After taking the oath of office Santos moved quickly to set a new course with Venezuela, distancing himself from the confrontational stance taken by his predecessor and mentor, Alvaro Uribe.

"We're optimistic, we really want this meeting to produce sure and lasting results for the good of our peoples," Santos said Tuesday.

But he added: "I believe that after the meeting we'll really be able to know the results."

"We want to build peace between us, whatever it costs," Chavez said as he arrived in Colombia.

The two leaders -- who have opposing ideologies and have exchanged heated words in the past -- met in private in the house where Simon Bolivar, a South American independence hero and Chavez's idol, died in 1830. A joint statement was expected afterwards.

Both have expressed hopes for restoring relations severed by Caracas on July 22 after Colombia claimed that 1,500 guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) were operating in Venezuela.

Relations between Colombia and Venezuela already suffered in July 2009, when Chavez froze ties after Bogota agreed to give the United States access to seven military bases to fight cocaine production and trafficking.

Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said the leaders were likely to discuss the bases, but that the sensitive issue of the alleged presence of the FARC leadership on Venezuelan soil was unlikely to arise yet.

More immediate concerns of the return of ambassadors and the reopening the border to bilateral trade were expected to be the main focus.

Trade between the South American neighbors -- six billion dollars a year in 2008 -- fell precipitously during the dispute, hurting economies on both sides of their 2,000 kilometer (1,200 mile border) border.

Venezuela's debt to Colombian exporters -- of some 1.5 billion dollars, according to the Colombian-Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce -- also remains.

Many observers saw the change in the Colombian leadership as an opportunity to defuse tensions that saw Chavez order troops to the border last Friday.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has worked behind the scenes to encourage the rapprochement, said Monday: "I'm a great optimist regarding the building of peace between Venezuela and Colombia."

A Brazilian presidential spokesman said late Monday that the two leaders were expected to reestablish ties "in the coming hours."

Cuba's Fidel Castro meanwhile said Monday that there was "not even a remote possibility that Colombia will attack Venezuela."

Before traveling to the summit, Santos visited his vice president, Angelino Garzon, in hospital, a day after the 63-year-old underwent emergency heart surgery.

Garzon would be able to return home in a couple of days, Santos said.

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